The Way of a Fool

A few days ago a friend of mine posted one of those postcards that show up on Facebook all the time. It said, “I am afraid of a world run by adults who were never spanked as kids and got trophies just for participating.” I “liked” it right away because it is a sentiment I believe in wholeheartedly. I have always abhorred the awarding of trophies for participation. Certificates, okay; I might even go along with ribbons. But trophies? We are not doing children a disservice by allowing them to encounter at an early age the reality that not everyone wins.

The day after my friend posted the e-postcard I was walking through the parking lot of a shopping center with my wife when I spotted an SUV decorated with writing on the windows announcing a momentous event. At first glance I thought it may have been for a sports team headed to a championship game or something along those lines, but as I kept walking I could see the side window, which read, “Next Stop: First Grade!”  Now is finishing kindergarten a milestone in the life of a child? Sure. Is there anything wrong with acknowledging it, even celebrating it? No. If the parents went so far as to write all over the windows of their vehicle, though, I can only imagine the other festivities that must have surrounded the event, and that got me to thinking: If little Johnny or Susie got all this for finishing kindergarten, imagine what will be expected when the time comes for high school graduation?

When children are very young and just beginning to exercise creativity it is appropriate to oooh and ahhh over crayon scribbles on a piece of paper that resemble nothing more than…crayon scribbles. Even posting said scribbles prominently in the refrigerator may be in order. When a few years have gone by, though, and those crayon scribbles would be the obvious result of carelessness or apathy, celebrating them would be foolish. In fact, I will be so bold as to say that we are not helping children when we celebrate everything they do as if it were some monumental feat. When we treat every participant equally, when we reward showing up the same way as we reward doing your best, it does not take long for children to discover that those accolades are really quite hollow. If the only thing that happens when you are the best of the best is that your trophy is a little bit bigger than the one they give to the kid who just put the uniform on and attended every game it would be understandable to wonder if it’s really worth it.

The realities of the e-postcard on my friend’s Facebook page were revealed in an unmistakable way on the first two episodes of the Food Network’s latest installment of Next Food Network Star, a show in which twelve contestants are eliminated one by one with the winner being given the opportunity to become a star on the channel. A number of the show’s previous winners have indeed gone on to become stars in their own right–though some have faded almost immediately after their victory. This season, though, included a young contestant named Matthew Grunwald. Only 22, he was the youngest of the show’s competitors, though his bio on the Food Network web site says Grunwald has “the experience of a chef twice his age.” Maybe so, but within minutes of the first episode it became clear that he also has the maturity of a child half his age.

Grunwald was cracking wise from the very start, which, understandably, irritated many of his fellow competitors. Being a smart aleck could be forgiven, perhaps, if it was balanced by some redeeming qualities, but Grunwald never demonstrated any. Instead, he was consistently arrogant, opinionated and pretentious. Even that could perhaps be overlooked by some if his actions could back up all of his talk, but they did not. Sure, he made some good food at times, judging by the comments from the real Food Network stars, but his presentation and camera presence were unfocused and chaotic. Of course, the mentors, Bobby Flay and Giada De Laurentiis were there to help Grunwald with that; after all, that is their job as mentors to the finalists. Grunwald, however, was not interested. He made comments away from the mentors that he really did not care what they had to say because he knew his cooking was good and he was who he was. He had this idea for taking cooking to the masses through the use of the hashtag, and he was not going to be deterred regardless of what the mentors had to say. At the end of the first episode, Grunwald and two other competitors were in the “bottom three”, meaning one of them was going to be eliminated. As they waited during the mentors’ deliberations one of the other competitors–a mother of three and seventeen years Grunwald’s senior–tried to offer him some advice. She began by saying, “I’d like to offer you advice, as a mother.” Before she could get another word out, Grunwald spouted off, “But you aren’t my mother. My mother raised a champion.” That remark was followed by something along the lines of, “I don’t care what you have to say. I don’t care what any of you have to say. I don’t care what they have to say,” gesturing in the direction of the room where Flay and De Laurentiis were meeting. The other competitors seemed genuinely shocked at his arrogance and immaturity.

Episode two was more of the same from Grunwald. He found himself in the bottom three once again, and he shared more of the same attitude during the waiting moments. When the three candidates for elimination went back into the “judgement room” to find out what was being sent home they stood before Flay, De Laurentiis and Alex Guarnaschelli, another Food Network star and Iron Chef. Viewers knew from comments included of the deliberations that Flay wanted Grunwald gone, but Guarnaschelli favored sending one of the other contestants home. De Laurentiis was the deciding vote, and she was also the one to deliver the news to the three finalists. When it became clear that she was about to send home one of the other contestants, Grunwald smirked. This clearly irritated De Laurentiis, as her displeasure became immediately clear. She looked at Flay, who commented, “That’s just immature.” She then turned to Guarnaschelli and said she was changing her mind, that Grunwald’s reaction had made it clear to her that he should be the one going home. She delivered the news to Grunwald and, after making it clear that he was “still going to be successful in this business” he made his exit. Interestingly, the episode did not include any tearful goodbyes to Grunwald from the other contestants as is usually the case; I suspect there were not any.

Leaving Grunwald on the show would no doubt have been good for ratings. There is always something to be said for having a contestant that the audience loves to hate. Grunwald was a spoiled brat accustomed to getting his way, and there was no doubt about it. I do not know how his mother raised him, and I am not going to presume to judge his mother, but his behavior is the epitome of what is implied by the e-postcard about no spankings and participation trophies. In an interview posted on the Food Network web site after his elimination Grunwald said that his behavior stemmed from the fact that he just gets so competitive. Competition is a good thing; I could hardly complain about participation trophies and argue against competition at the same time. Competition is a motivating force that makes someone want to be and do their best in the pursuit of a goal. Speaking from personal experience, getting too wrapped up in competition can indeed cause someone to do and say things they may later regret if it is not harnessed. A desire to win, however, should also produce teachability. The best competitors in the world get where they are not by themselves, but with the assistance of coaches who help them improve. Grunwald had the opportunity to be coached by two of the best; Bobby Flay and Giada De Laurentiis are two of the most successful and recognizable culinary personalities in the world. Yet, Grunwald was convinced they had nothing to offer him; he knew it all already.

Grunwald was a perfect example for the rest of us, but the truth is there is a lesson is his flaming arrogance for each of us. Scripture includes abundant instruction of the wisdom of listening to and heeding wise counsel and the stupidity of ignoring it. Proverbs 12:15, for example, says. “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.” Grunwald is young and, apparently, talented. He no doubt will have other opportunities for success. That success, though, will be determined far more by whether or not he learned a lesson in his Food Network Star experience than by his talent. Figuratively speaking, De Laurentiis spanked him; she made it clear that his arrogance and immaturity was not acceptable. He received no trophy for participating. May Matthew Grunwald serve as a lesson for each of us.

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